Politics as Usual

Are you sick of the Republican primaries and caucuses yet? I’m not. I find it all unfortunately compelling. I really do try to limit my exposure to politicians, but the fact that there actually appears to be a contest makes for good television. Well, at some point, we should try to define “good” television.

The the thing is, politics and entertainment really are dangerously close. The biggest thing that popular politics has in common with the rest of the entertainment industry is the suspension of disbelief. This suspension is most evident in science fiction and fantasy:  “I know that horses can’t talk, but I won’t let my skepticism of the concept keep me from following the story.” Reality television also relies on the suspension of disbelief, but it is a bit more hidden:  “I know that these scenes are edited and contrived and that these people are acting (whether they really appreciate it or not,) but I won’t let that stop me from following the story and becoming emotionally attached to characters.” But we rarely give voice to these thoughts; the decision to ignore inconsistencies isn’t always a conscious one. When watching Mr. Ed, it isn’t a fresh struggle against skepticism every time the horse talks. We basically just turn off our skepticism as soon as we turn on the television without even having to make the conscious thought “I know what I am about to watch is not real, but I’ll ignore that fact.”

When applied to politicians, the thought is very similar: “I know that they are trying to sell me something by making promises that are unrealistic and claims that are dubious, but that won’t stop me from developing an emotional attachment to one politician because I like his unrealistic promises and dubious claims more than the other guy’s.” What makes it particularly interesting is when disbelief is not suspended uniformly: “I really believe in this candidate’s unrealistic promises and rhetoric! The other guy’s unrealistic promises are lies!” And it is all particularly entertaining when we get totally sucked in and ignore that we know it’s just a show.

Beer of the Week: NZ Pure Lager – The good people at Boundary Road Brewery are hard at work in New Zealand. They brew giant international brands Tuborg, Carlsberg and Kingfisher under licence, but they also have their own line of local, unique craft beers. And somewhere between these two groups is their NZ Pure line. NZ Pure Lager is their large scale domestic product. It is called Pure because there are neither additives nor preservatives. (Incidentally, I suspect that the lack of preservatives and the green bottle combine to account for the bulk of the bad reviews this beer gets; it really ought to be consumed as soon after bottling as possible to keep it from going bad.) Of the two bottles I had, one seemed to have succumbed to light damage. The other, was an ok beer. It was light, and clear with a quickly fading, foamy, white head. When served ice cold, it was certainly a serviceable drinking beer.

Reading of the week: Act 4, Scene 2 of Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare – Jack Cade was the leader of a populist rebellion in 1450. Like most popular politicians, Cade got his power from his rhetoric and promises to improve people’s lives. In Henry VI, Part 2, Shakespeare bases a character on Mr. Cade and makes him a stereotypical politician: a crook who puts on airs and makes extravagant, impossible promises. “The three-hooped pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer.”

Question of the week: Does Cade propose the ban on small beer (traditional low alcohol beer, widely consumed for hydration and as a supplemental source of calories) because it has alcohol or because it doesn’t have enough alcohol?


Wanted: One side-kick, must love beer, Spanish speaker preferred

So often, late January is the time when New Year’s resolutions fall apart. There are a number of reasons for these failures. Most of the problems involve impulse control and will-power. However, a many people set unrealistic goals and bring about their failure in that way.

The most extreme and strict resolutions are so prone to failure because an all-or-nothing attitude can make even the smallest of hurdles insurmountable. You couldn’t get to the gym today? Might as well eat a whole pizza, resolution over.  It has almost become a recurring theme on this blog to encourage moderation. Moderation in drinking, moderation in studying and now moderation in self-improvement. By being moderate in what we hope to accomplish, we will experience only moderate setbacks. If we wish to make tremendous changes, the obstacles we face will be tremendous.

Still, one must admit that there is some sort of virtue in attempting great self-improvement. So how can one seek greatness without falling on every small difficulty? The answer may be in the attitude of the man of La Mancha. Don Quixote’s goals and aspirations were extremely high; higher than even conceivably attainable. However, when he encountered setbacks, he simply added them to the list of things that he would overcome. Each time that something went wrong, and that was quite often, he saw an opportunity to make his glory even greater. Sure he was delusional, but perhaps a bit of delusion is exactly what is needed to drive one to greatness. So remember, those windmills really are giants. And if they knock you down, get right back on your horse and chase down the wizard who sent them to get you.

Beer of the Week: Cusqueña Malt Lager – While Cervantes was writing about our quixotic hero, the Spanish Empire was growing. Although the Spanish no longer control Peru, their influence there will probably never go away. Cusqueña, however, may not stand the test of time. The most exciting part of this beer is the fact that it’s from Peru. The look isn’t at all bad. It is a pale gold with a pure white head. From there, it is pretty much down hill. It is reminiscent of a standard American macrobrew, although it may have a bit more flavor. The finish is rather wet, which doesn’t help the overall appeal.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote, Part One by Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote tilting at windmills is the most iconic scene of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Taking on 30 or 40 horrible giants can be quite daunting, so “if thou beest afraid, go aside and pray, whilst I enter into cruel and unequal battle with them.”

Question of the week: If you take on a quixotic project, how important is it to have a Sancho Panza?


Icehouse to Whitehouse

In general, American primary elections are paid for by tax dollars. But how much sense does that make? In essence, the presidential primaries are held for two private organizations to make an internal decision:  “who will be our official candidates in the general election?” But the winner of the primary elections is not elected to a government position, so why should the government pay for these private clubs to decide who their candidates will be? What about the Communist Party, the Modern Whig Party or the Libertarian Party? Why don’t they get publicly funded events to chose their candidates? Why do they have to foot the bill for their own internal decisions?

The answer to these questions is found in the answer to one larger question: who makes the rules? The two biggest parties make all of the rules. Of course the policies they enact heavily favor themselves. The word “bipartisan” doesn’t mean the same thing as “nonpartisan,” it means “the two of us will work together, favoring ourselves.” As long as they can maintain a majority they can make rules that keep them in the majority.

The use of general tax funds to pay for their own club decisions may not seem to warrant the term “tyranny” but it is clearly a step on the way. What else should one call the ruling class taking money from the people to pay for their own affairs? According to John Stuart Mill, tyranny in democratic societies actually exists even without such monetary questions. In a democratic society, the majority (“or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority”) can exercise tremendous oppressive power. Prevailing ideas and emotions can become law in everything but name if the so-called majority decides to enforce them by ostracizing any dissenters.

So when told that “everybody knows that the primary election deserves to be tax funded because it is essential to choosing the next president,” or “everybody knows that third party candidates do nothing but steal votes from the real candidates,” one ought to think carefully about who “everybody” is. And one also ought to question why “everybody” talks so much about what needs to change in the world but acts in ways that maintain the status quo.

Beer of the Week: Icehouse – As part of the “Premium Beer Collection” that I received for Christmas, Icehouse deserves a review. In it’s own way, ice beer is a really interesting concept. Ice beer is made by freezing beer and then removing some of the ice crystals that form. By removing some of the water (in the form of ice) the concentration of alcohol goes up. The process also seems to destroy a lot of the flavor aspects, but higher alcohol content (5.5% in this case) may be worth it for some consumers. The smell of the beer is not much, but what is there is not very pleasant. The beer itself is crystal clear with a quickly fading head. It tastes a bit sour and chemical. Not a great choice. But hey, if it is made by a huge company like SABMiller…

Reading of the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – Mill identifies a problem with the “power of the people” that is so widely regarded as the great virtue of democratic republics:  “The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised.”

Question of the week: How many things would you like to do, but do not do only because you worry about what “everybody” would think?


Passion for passion’s sake

“I loved not yet, yet I loved to love.”

If nothing else, St. Augustine was a passionate young man. And when he reflected upon his young and rambunctious years, he observed that he had a certain desire to experience strong, passionate emotion. He was, in a general sort of way, indiscriminate about the nature of the emotion so long as it was intense. He was irresistibly drawn to the theater “to be made sad, beholding doleful and tragical things… and this very sorrow is his pleasure.” Passionate relationships afforded him a certain double pleasure because he could experience a whole range of emotions associated with relationships: “I was both beloved, and secretly arrived at the bond of enjoying; and was with joy fettered with sorrow-bringing bonds, that I might be scourged with the iron burning rods of jealousy, and suspicion, and fears, and angers, and quarrels.”

The way Augustine describes his emotional masochism and his attraction to drama is so interesting, in part, because it raises so many questions about why he wrote The Confessions at all. Writing about his turbulent, passionate youth may be seen as an attempt to exorcise any remaining demons, but it approaches dangerously close to simply rehashing all of those youthful passions and indiscretions in an attempt to feel some hint of those embers still glowing within him. What of the person who reads and responds emotionally to Augustine’s personal struggles? Doesn’t the reader become a sort of voyeur like young Augustine at the theater? Surely, it is more moving to witness the inner turmoil of Augustine than to read about a pure soul who never needed (as much) redemption, but Augustine himself admits that this is problematic because people actually enjoy watching how low and how wicked another person will become. The reader of The Confessions must constantly be on his guard not to anticipate with a secret joy what sin Augustine will confess next. But the temptation that Augustine lays before his reader is too great. Even (or perhaps especially) the most righteous reader will take pleasure in viewing Augustine’s sinful and self-destructive behavior, if only because it makes the redemption seem the greater. So Augustine’s great cautionary tale becomes the very stumbling block about which it warns.

Beer of the Week: Corona Extra – This extremely pale macro lager is nothing special. It is watery and has a bit of a chemical aftertaste. Some may complain that since it was consumed without lime, I didn’t get the full experience. Perhaps the lime would have helped. I did, however add a pinch of salt (as I was taught to by some Mexican co-workers ages ago.) The rough surface of the salt crystals acts as a nucleation point for bubbles to form, releasing more of the beer’s aroma. It also gives the beer a cleaner finish, covering the chemical flavor and cutting any sticky feeling that would otherwise exist. Maybe the “Extra” in the name refers to the extra work one has to do to make it a reasonable choice.

Reading of the week: The Confessions of St. Augustine Book 3, Paragraphs 1-4 – If ancient Carthage had a tourism industry, the slogan would have been “What happens in Carthage, stays in Carthage.”

Question of the week: Wouldn’t young Augustine have absolutely loved the show Jersey Shore? Simply watching sinners to see how low they will sink sounds right up his alley.